For most high school seniors, the path to college is an all-consuming process full of hope, dreams and anxiety. It includes visiting campuses, writing—and rewriting—college essays, mourning rejections and celebrating acceptances. From there, the to-do list turns to connecting with roommates, shopping for dorm room décor and weighing one major against another. It’s a dizzying, well-tread route that’s pursued every year by millions of graduating seniors nationwide.
But it’s not for everyone. At least not immediately after high school. A growing number of seniors are considering taking a year off between graduation and college to pursue non-academic enrichment activities, including travel, volunteerism or even starting a business or nonprofit. For those who embrace it, the gap year is seen as a way to hit the reset button, avoid academic burnout, check off a bucket list item and hone personal skills.
About 40,000 students opt for a gap year, still a tiny fraction of the number headed to college. The concept, rooted in British tradition, saw an uptick in awareness after First Daughter Malia Obama took a gap year in 2016 before matriculating at Harvard University.
“I wouldn’t call it a trend yet, but it’s definitely being explored more now,” says Dana Schlotterer, assistant principal of Runnels High School and owner of the Baton Rouge-based college consulting firm, My UGuide. “It can actually be a way to make yourself more marketable to highly selective schools.”
But Schlotterer cautions that for some students, interrupting the momentum of being in school can make it hard to jump back in. Moreover, it’s important that the gap year be seen as a year of organized exploration, not just goofing off, she says.
“It’s definitely not for everyone,” Schlotterer says. “A student has to be really mature and responsible in order to make it a productive experience rather than a waste of time.”
Several organizations have emerged throughout the U.S. to match students with guided travel or service opportunities. For example, Thinking Beyond Borders matches gappers with global travel and service for either a semester or school year, while Global Citizen Year places young people in Brazil, India, Ecuador and Senegal.
Schlotterer also suggests that seniors considering a gap year complete the college application process while still in high school, and then deferring their college acceptance. More colleges and universities are making it easier for students to do this, says Schlotterer.
“If they want you, then more than likely they’ll still want you a year later, but it’s important to be up front about it and be clear about your intentions,” she says. “You need to explain why a gap year is important to you, and you should be authentic about it.”
Finally, for Louisiana students interested in taking a gap year, it’s important to understand the timeline for TOPS eligibility. The state’s tuition assistance program requires qualifying students to enroll in college by the first semester following the first anniversary of high school graduation, making it possible for students to take a year off–but not longer.
— MAGGIE HEYN RICHARDSON